Dealing with the slow-mo death of my Evil Demented Mother (hence, EDM) last year taught me two things, one that I’d always suspected and one that I hadn’t known. First, Jewish traditions around death and dying are simply the best; second, I’m more deeply Jewish than I could ever have expected.
That the Jewish D+D traditions made me the envy of my Gentile friends was, well, interesting; that habits of mind and values I thought were mine alone turned out to be Jewish in origin was a revelation deeper than a story idea that goes "assimilated exogamous Jewish girl comes home when confronted with death of mother."
I suppose it started in the autumn, when EDM was clearly declining. One way to redeem the fifteen years we had both suffered since she was diagnosed with dementia, I decided, was to donate her body to USC Dementia Research, the designated Southern California NIH research institution. (If you want to do this, it has to be arranged way in advance of need. There are human-subject experimentation forms to be filled out!) I was determined that some scientific/medical/educational value should come from the mess of EDM's life (and mine, by proxy, as her primary—if long-distance—caregiver). This is, of course, a canonical-nigh-unto-mockable Jewish value. Historically, Orthodox Judaism hasn't liked autopsy, wanting to respect the bodies of the dead, but in modern times the value placed by Jews on learning has trumped. If you are Jewish and have the misfortune to not be part of the medical profession, at least you can help out those who are. I chose a dementia research facility because of my own experience in a medical family— I know how cavalier medical students can be. With memories of cigarette-smoking cadavers dressed in funny hats dancing through my head, I decided against gross anatomy for EDM. I wanted defined explorations by experts in search of specific research goals, just like the Old Jews would have it: Respect for the body. Pursuit of knowledge. But the point here, as in the rest of my management of EDM's death, is that I initially didn't think I was being observant or acting from a Jewish ethical point of view. I just thought I was being me, then realizing that what I was actually doing was being Jewish. For example, the wondrous, skilled, sanity-saving geriatric case-manger I worked with, a former professor of gerontology, told me that she had never before had a client whose family went to such great lengths as I had in order to donate the demented elder's body to science. But according to her, almost all of her previous clientele was Gentile. And so it went, during the three months of EDM's fade-out from this incarnation. Neither the facility where EDM was housed (Episcopalian), nor the medical staff attending her (lead doctor, Chinese-American), were willing to take her off her meds and just let her go—even though she had indicated to everyone, including all three of us with powers of attorney, that she no longer wanted to be here, not in this desolate condition of body and soul. Jews believe that resources are for the living and not for the dead: if no good can come through sustaining a life that no longer makes sense to the person possessing it, better to preserve resources for the family members who survive. Then complicated timing issues arose with the actual day of EDM's funeral. I was arranging the ceremony from 400 miles away, people were coming in from out of town, and EDM, the Wallis Warfield Simpson wannabe, would want to have been buried with as big a party as possible, so the in-the-ground-within-48-hours thing couldn’t happen. When a saintly, kindly friend, a woman with a degree in Religious Studies who was also studying to be a hospice chaplain—but who, like most of my friends, is as goyische as they come—suggested having the funeral on a Saturday, I found myself snarling: "We don't have funerals on Saturdays." I couldn't believe my dear friend suggested such an outrage—a funeral on a Saturday! By then, I had to admit it. I was Jewish, she was not, so how could she know? Guess what, I did know, lord knows how. I was part of a "we".
So to the wonder of my almost-always-non-Jewish intimates, I explained that we don't believe in embalming; we believe in a simple linen shroud; we traditionally have someone wash and sit by the body. I have always personally found open-caskets barbaric, and generally that's something we feel is not comme il faut, either. My funerary aesthetic was Jewish. But there's more. I found out it was entirely right to wear that torn black boutonniere for the week after EDM was safely placed in the ground. EDM might have been a truly nasty piece of work who shouldn't have been allowed to breed, but she was still, biologically speaking, my mother, and it fit my mood to wear a sign saying, "Hey, I am in Stage I mourning, so don't expect coherence.” And the thick candle I was given to burn for that week—it did burn for a week. I felt it somehow guided EDM, sped her on her way. Again, if we define religious rites as "outward signs of an inward grace," it was exactly the right thing, both for my psychology and for my place in the community. (“Warning: recent death in this household. Proceed with caution.”) And when the month of semi-official mourning was over, I really was done with the acute stage of dealing with D+D legal and financial fu. More important, more at the level of the woo-woo, I was beginning to feel unbound from EDM, and released from my handmaiden/caretaker role. The old Jews had it right: After a month of mourning (though it my case, it was really processing, of both paperwork and my own internal state) one is ready to get back to the business of living. My Gentile friends marveled, too, when I explained about the unveiling to come about a year after EDM's departure for places unknown. We get to have a formalization of the end of the year of mourning. Or perhaps the unveiling marks the year it takes us to understand the shape of our lives without the one who died.
These friends loved the sight of the stones placed on the gravestones in the cemetery wherein EDM was laid after I explained that these stones that turned headstones into cairns signified “You are remembered.” In fact, these dear pals o' mine, as the secular humanist/maybe sometimes vaguely spiritual/classic 21st century American blendo types that they were, were jealous that I had this strong tradition to call on in a time of crises—that it showed me the way sure-footedly and told me what to do and mostly was a source of comfort and made it so I didn't have to make everything up from scratch at a time when I had enough on my mind. And that it was mostly a good tradition that made good human sense, and had the quality of found folk wisdom with a tried-and-true durability of millennia. They liked the Way of the Old Jews a lot, and I owned it by reflex. So when I coincidentally got a recent email from an ex-boyfriend (yet another of my tawny super-shagetzim—he grew up riding his horse to school in rural Arizona) who had converted to Judaism, and kept kosher, and had taught Torah classes, and who talked about what we believe, I was startled. For it made me conscious of the difference between Judaism as a culture, and Judaism as a religion. He was a convert to the religion; EDM, the original Marjorie Morningstar-style JAP, whose lunch every day in college had been a ham sandwich and a chocolate malt, who never attended a seder until her freshman boyfriend took her home to his parents'—was imbued enough with the tradition that she had passed it down to me. She taught me, without my knowing she had done so, who we are. And in regard to D+D, I do feel we have the goods. What I did for EDM wasn't really about religious observance, but about doing right by the dead and doing right by the living. In our time of suppurating hostilities between those who make a fundamentalist claim to know the mind of God and those, as intolerant, who make fundamentalist claims that only fools speak of God, it was a fine thing to have a rite of passage that, while steeped in the majesty of time-honored rhetoric and gesture, had little to do with the problem of God.
Paulina Borsook is a writer living in Northern California. Author of the book Cyberselfish, she had a career in the roaring '90s writing about technology and culture for Wired, Salon, Mother Jones, The New York Times, and others too numerous to count. Her work has been widely anthologized.